A recent report by the Dallas Women Lawyers Association illustrates two very important points:
1) the legal profession has a long way to go to reach anything close to gender parity, and;
2) it is incumbent on women lawyers to help close the gap, both by advocating for systemic changes in the profession and by engaging in the kind of strategic self-promotion that can position them to make those changes happen.
The DWLA report, Bridging the Gap: Practical Resources and Suggestions for Promoting and Retaining Female Attorneys in the Legal Profession, is a concise rundown of the challenges women lawyers face and how to address them.
Gender bias is a concern, regardless of industry or profession, but gender bias in the legal profession is particularly troubling. Lawyers play a uniquely important role in civil society, from the drafting and enforcement of laws to defending those accused of violating them. So, if women lawyers could occupy more seats at more important tables, the positive ripple effects would be enormous.
That’s why recruiting, retaining and promoting women lawyers is so important. Every woman who controls a major book of business and wields influence in a major firm, every female general counsel, and every woman who is elevated to a judicial bench or elected to public office is one more person who can give voice to the half of the population that is, even today, not a big enough part of the national conversation.
Bridging the Gap outlines the challenges women lawyers face, including pay gaps, disparity in equity partnerships, high attrition, bias in work assignments and origination credit, and underrepresentation on compensation and governance committees. These issues are, of course, all interrelated, so addressing one can help address some of the others.
The full report is worth a read and can be found on the DWLA website.
Bridging the Gap
Here are some of the concrete steps DWLA proposes to bridge the gap:
- Corporate clients need to both apply pressure to outside counsel as well as improve gender parity in their own ranks. When clients demand diversity on the legal teams doing their work, firms have little choice but to deliver. Some major corporate clients have made such demands, but not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way.
- Law firms should increase budgets for women-focused programming. Many firms have women-focused events or initiatives, but not many expend actual resources on them, let alone include the participation of firm leadership. For decades, a significant portion of major firms’ marketing dollars have been spent on events geared toward male attorneys. If firms truly want to improve their retention of women lawyers, they need to expend the resources and energy to make it happen.
- Make recruitment of women a priority in lateral hiring. A lateral move typically comes with a hefty pay raise, but only about 15 percent of equity laterals are women. More women laterals can make a dent in the equity partner pay gap.
- Facilitate and strengthen women’s mentorship and networking programs. Networking is still one of the most important elements of business generation, which is the key ingredient to success in private practice. By helping women master the art of rainmaking, their chances of success multiply greatly.
- Firms should adopt the “Mansfield Rule.” The Mansfield Rule requires that 30 percent of candidates for leadership positions within a firm be comprised of women or minorities. Law firms that are certified to uphold the Mansfield Rule are rewarded with an invitation to send diverse partners to an annual Client Forum that facilitates networking and business development with in-house counsel from companies such as Facebook, PayPal, American Express, and Microsoft.
- Ensure a critical mass of women on management and compensation committees. Studies show that having just one or two women on a committee produces little effect on real or perceived gender bias. The gender pay gap was virtually eliminated among firms that had three or more women serving on their compensation committee.
- Require diversity on business development efforts. More importantly, the attorneys who are involved in the pitch should be given a share of any resulting work and a share of the credit for getting the work in the door.
- Address inequities in origination credit and succession plans for retiring lawyers. Determining origination credit and who “inherits” client relationships is ripe for bias. Addressing that bias can go a long way toward closing the success gap.
- Improve the availability and quality of alternative work arrangements for those lawyers who require more schedule flexibility. Firms need to ensure such arrangements don’t stigmatize those who use them, or trap them in a cycle of busywork.
- Adopt an on-ramping program for women who want to return to the workforce. Most women who take time away from full-time work plan to come back, but many find it exceedingly difficult to do so. Programs such as the OnRamp Fellowship can help smooth that transition.
What can individual women lawyers do?
If you’re not in a leadership position at a major law firm or a high-ranking in-house counsel, you may not be able to remedy the major items on the DWLA’s honey-do list. Still, in keeping with the “think globally, act locally” principle, individual women lawyers can still take action:
If you’re at a major firm with a women’s initiative, become a part of that effort. Chances are, you’re the intended beneficiary anyway, so dive in. If the program is merely giving lip service to the problem, work to change that. (I know, firm politics are dicey, and agitators are famously unappreciated in BigLaw. So, within the confines of your firm’s political realities, work to improve your firm’s ineffective diversity initiative.)
Get comfortable with self-promotion. Many women are already great at this, but in my experience, a discomfort with self-promotion is most women’s Achilles heel. We find it icky and uncomfortable*. But to become successful in private practice, one must have a significant client base. Admittedly, business generation is a complex art with many moving parts, but two important ingredients are demonstrated competence and expertise.
Writing and speaking, coupled with the tasteful promotion of that writing and speaking (through tools such as blogging, social media and newsletters), is an excellent way to ensure that others know about your competence and expertise.
Self-promotion doesn’t have to be about “look at me!” It can simply be a vehicle to share your knowledge and become a source of genuine value for your clients, prospective clients and referral sources. Certainly, there’s a place in the world for massive ad buys and high-dollar sponsorships. But if you don’t have that kind of budget (and even if you do), demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about is extraordinarily effective marketing.
If you need help getting past your discomfort with self-promotion, remind yourself that your personal success isn’t just about you. We greatly need more successful women lawyers, because the more successful women lawyers there are, the greater voice all women have in our country’s most important decisions.
So, don’t think of it as self-promotion. Think of it as making the world a better place.
Because, in a very real way, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
*I’ll be presenting “Getting Past the ‘Ick’ Factor in Self-Promotion and Marketing” on January 25 at an event sponsored by Attorneys Serving the Community. Email me if you want me to send you the details when I have them.
Amy Boardman Hunt is all about helping lawyers – especially women lawyers – find their voice and showcase their expertise. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to find great hiking spots in Dallas. If you know of any – or you need a legal marketing muse – drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.